Alibek Datbayev’s journey to helping build the future of travel at Booking.com
Nearly 38 rejections in the span of 2-3 months sounds rueful to the average person. But for great software engineers, such resilience is a common trait. All too often, great software engineers pass through traditional resume screenings and freeze during the whiteboard coding interview.
If you think about it, coding on-the-spot in front of 3-5 different people multiple times isn’t a great reflection of your coding skills. You don’t get to use to your own IDE, you have an absurdly limited amount of time and you’re in an incredibly high-pressure environment.
Job interviews are inherently difficult. But for Alibek Datbayev, landing a new job proved to be a test of a whole new level of willpower. Not only did he interview at about 40 companies, each of those companies had 2-4 rounds of interviews.
In about two months, he calculated a total of 120 rounds of interviews, resulting in 10 final rounds and 2 offers.
Here’s the thing—Datbayev is an exceptional coder. He’s not only built geo apps, online ticket booking systems and an online ecommerce store from scratch, but also worked on cutting-edge new tools like back-end reward points systems and developed the largest blogging platform in Central Asia. But, like many coders, crushing job interviews just wasn’t one of his strong suits. Job interviews are difficult by design.
We sat down with Datbayev to learn more about his journey navigating through over 100 job interviews, and finally achieving a highly coveted opportunity of helping to build the future of travel at Booking.com.
So, how did you get to where you are today?
I’ve always been passionate about coding, starting from my early days at Olympiad teams in high school and ACM teams in college. This involvement, and consistent practicing, has really helped me master my technical skills.
I’m originally from Kazakhstan, where the tech scene is burgeoning, but it’s of course unparalleled to Silicon Valley. I’ve always dreamed of going abroad to other tech hubs and build cool technology. I had the opportunity to do that in 2014 when I was referred to Ipsy, the beauty product retailer, helped me get a job in San Mateo. But after my Visa expired, I had to return to Kazakhstan for a couple months to find another job. That’s when I interviewed with about 40 companies.
Wow, you interviewed at 40 different companies. What was going through your head as you went through so many job interviews?
I mean, of course it’s tough. There were several reasons why the job opportunities weren’t working out. But I know that I’m confident in my skills. It was just a matter of time. Many of the companies I was interviewing at were just not the right fit. For other opportunities, I simply didn’t do well enough in the difficult coding challenges. Many other companies didn’t want to hire me unless they met me in person. This was difficult because I was in Kazakhstan, and there was a 9-12 hour time difference. I would often do coding interviews at like 1 AM or 2 AM.
For instance, I got into the final interview for an extremely high-growth human resources startup. That was exciting, and
I really thought I was going to get an offer. But, eventually, the last round of the interview was super hard. I just failed.
But I just kept going because I knew it would happen eventually. I have the right skills, but it’s hard for companies to see that easily in the way most coding interviews are set up.
And how did you succeed and land a job at Booking.com’s engineering team?
Booking.com was hosting an online coding competition through HackerRank in September 2015, and I entered the contest. This changed my life.
I wouldn’t be here in the beautiful city of Amsterdam, where Booking.com HQ is based, if it wasn’t for this CodeSprint, or online hackathon.
I actually didn’t particularly score very high on those challenges (editor’s note: his rank was 305/435), but since I opted into the job opportunity after successfully passing the phone screen technical interview, the recruiters and engineers invited me for an onsite interview and they liked the way that I approached the problems.
This interview process was great because I was able to get my foot in the door by in just a day, in my own computer from my own home.
Booking’s culture is all about opening doors to the best talent internationally. So, after a couple more interviews that focused on culture fit, they decided to relocate me, which was incredibly helpful. So, I just started working on the engineering team at the headquarters about two months ago. I’ve been loving it so far. I’m really happy I participated in Booking’s online hackathon, and I’m grateful for that opportunity!
Any advice for other people who are struggling to succeed at coding interviews?
Even though algorithmic challenges aren’t really used on the job much in production, it’s still really important to keep revisiting your fundamentals. It’s just like a muscle–if you don’t train it, it’ll become weak. Keep practicing code challenges, and don’t give up. If you fail 10 interviews in a row, go for the 11th interview. But take a look at all the variables, and see if there’s anything you can do differently to improve. Take the pressure off, and work through problems routinely to keep your muscle memory in shape.
At some point, I mastered my skills, and practicing code challenges helped me fill in spaces in my knowledge.